Big Power Rivalry in the Gulf Requires a US Strategy Rethink

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (Wikimedia Commons)

by James M. Dorsey

As French, Pakistani and other leaders seek to engineer a meeting between the US and Iranian presidents on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, big power rivalry could rack up tension in the waters of the Gulf and the Indian Ocean.

With prospects for a face-to-face encounter between presidents Donald J. Trump and Hassan Rouhani slim at best, attention is likely to focus on beefing up the security of key Saudi oil facilities after drone and missile attacks, blamed by the kingdom and the United States on Iran, and identifying an appropriate response that minimizes the risk of a full-fledged military confrontation.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, days after the attacks severely damaged oil installations, joined a US-led coalition to secure the Middle East’s waterways. Earlier, Britain, Bahrain and Australia pledged to participate in the coalition.

Japan declined to join but said it was considering sending its Maritime Self-Defense Force (SDF) on information-gathering missions in the region. It said it would coordinate with the US-led coalition and would include the Strait of Hormuz in its operations if Iran agreed. Japan has unsuccessfully sought to mediate between the United States and Iran.

The US Defense Department, meanwhile, in response to a request from Saudi Arabia and the UAE and in an effort to reassure Gulf allies said last week that it was sending an unspecified number of troops and equipment to the two countries to bolster their defences.

Iranian Brigadier General Ghadir Nezami, head of international and diplomatic affairs of his country’s armed forces, raised the stakes by saying that the Iranian navy would be holding joint exercises with Russia and China in the Indian Ocean and the Sea of Oman.

General Nezami, who is believed to have recently accompanied chairman of the Iranian Joint Chiefs of Staff Major General Mohammad Baqeri on a visit to China, gave no date for the exercises. Chinese and Russian media have yet to report the planned exercise while spokesmen in the two countries declined to confirm or deny the Iranian announcement.

Iranian Navy Commander Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi said in July that the Russian and Iranian navies would be conducting a joint exercise within a matter of months to boost military cooperation.

Russian and Chinese hesitancy to confirm the exercise may be designed to avoid hiking tensions as efforts at the United Nations to mediate between the United States and Iran proceed.

Moreover, Russian president Vladimir Putin is likely to want to avoid a shadow being cast over his planned visit to Saudi Arabia in October. Mr. Putin has urged the kingdom to proceed with the acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-missile system that was agreed in principle two years ago.

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov met this week with his Saudi counterpart Ibrahim Assaf at the United Nations to discuss the visit.

Russia and China may also not want to undermine a Chinese-backed Russian proposal for a collective security agreement in the Gulf that would replace the US defence umbrella at a time that Saudi Arabia, uncertain about American reliability, may reach out to other countries for support in protecting its oil assets.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency last week reported that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had requested South Korean assistance in the strengthening of the kingdom’s air defense system.

Gulf concern about US reliability, dating back to US president Barak Obama’s negotiation of an international nuclear agreement with Iran and reinforced by Mr. Trump’s transactional response to the recent attacks on Saudi oil fields, leaves the Saudis and the Americans with no good choices.

Middle East scholar and former advisor to the US Defence Department Bilal Y. Saab argues, against the backdrop of a widespread feeling in Gulf states that the United States is gradually reducing its commitment to their defense as Washington focuses on Asia and the Indo-Pacific, that the United States in particular is caught in a Catch-22.

Its options of reducing commitment without surrendering its umbilical defense cord and making way for America’s rivals are limited.

Mr. Saab believes that the United States should focus its security cooperation less single-mindedly on arms sales and more on building the Gulf states’ institutional national defense infrastructure. Failure to do so, would risk regional tensions repeatedly spiralling out of control and ultimately prevent a gradual US drawdown.

The problem is, in Mr. Saab’s words, that what the United States should be doing to “responsibly reduce its security burden and footprint in the region” while safeguarding opportunities for lucrative arms sales would likely reinforce perceptions of America as unreliable and willing to sacrifice its friends – a perception that dates from the 2011 popular Arab revolts when Washington ultimately backed the toppling of Egyptian president and US ally Hosni Mubarak.

Mr. Saad is the first person to admit that his proposition may be pie in the sky.

“It would mean building and empowering institutions that have the guns, and thus the ability, to conduct coups. Only a foolish Arab autocrat would be interested in that. It would also mean liberalizing or professionalizing national-security ministries and intelligence agencies. Few Arab leaders would voluntarily undermine the favourable clientelistic networks that are run by their governments. In short, defense reform requires political reform,” he says.

Moreover, institution building would bring the different threat perceptions of the Gulf states and the US into sharp relief and force Gulf states to rethink their arms acquisition policies and grant the United States access to their jealousy guarded most secret data and programs.

Said Mr. Saab: “There is no shortage of problems on the US end or on its partners’ end when it comes to security cooperation. But it will be impossible to address any of those without making a total switch on how the United States thinks about security cooperation.”

That would require a US president who thinks in strategic rather than transactional terms.

Republished, with permission, from The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

James Dorsey

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.



  1. Sorry folks for repeated comment, but since Mr. James Dorsey like the rest of western think tank Iran analyst and scholars, is wrapped up in his orientalist views and can’t present a realistic unbiased view geopolitics of Persian Gulf region I found my earlier comment on previous post is even more related to Mr. Dorsey’ post.
    Based on Currently, circumstances for US rapprochement to Iran, is not yet the same as it was with China. US rapprochement to China was out of ANY better choices. US was already and admittedly militarily and politically (at home) defeated in north and South Pacific. Post WWII US military adventurism namely in Korea and later in Vietnam badly diminished US resources and world view. US had no choice but to leave Vietnam and south pacific.US rapprochement to China and accepting her to UN was a major geopolitical decision to disallow penetration of soviet influence in South Pacific region when US forces leave the religion. In other words, Nixon kissing Mao’ ass was due to a geopolitical strategic necessity without any better choice.
    The case for rapprochement to Iran is not yet the same although more likely is becoming one of similar. With Iran, empowering Iran friendly forces making life difficult for the American military in the region, will eventually make defeated US military decide to leave the region just as she did in Vietnam. When that time comes, US again will not find any better choice for the security of the region other than kissing Iranian’ rear like they did with China in early 70s.
    As all indications have shown in this last few months, that point (US wanting to leave the region) has already started, and is accelerating ever since leaving JCPOA, this is the sole reason why so badly US wants to negotiate with Iran on issues other than nuclear file, namely ballistic missiles and the so-called Iran’ regional behavior.
    As I have come to understand Iran’ HISTORIC strategic thinking and necessities, for a real and equally beneficial rapprochement with Iran to take place, and to get Iran to negotiate on Regional matters, desperate sanctions and war threat are nonstarters and actually will diminish possibility of rapprochement since they increase distrust of Americans intentions.
    At this juncture, US and her puddles in Europe, do not possess any good cards to threaten Iran or make Iran to negotiate without them changing their hegemonic behavior toward international law. Beside all that in mind, beneficial to Iran’s position, stupidly US and Europe have created a cold trade war atmosphere with both China and Russia, secondly in Iran’s benefit US and her allies have admitted losing wars in multiple battlefields in Iran’s regions of influence, thirdly Iran has politicly and militarily empowered independent groups that have challenged US/west policies and interests in the region.
    Now with all that in mind, if US doesn’t want increased china’ influence in Persian Gulf, North Indian Ocean, and direct access to Europe and Mediterranean Sea via land routes, US will first need to recognize and accept Iran’s sovereignty independence and her national interests. Only within that concept and posture US will get Iran’s cooperation to not damage US’ long term interests in the western Asian region.

  2. Kooshy

    Americans do not care about China’s influence in Iran or the Persian Gulf.

    They only care about Israel.

    Their Uniformed Military, just like the KGB, has a better grasp of strategic realities but they are subordinate to civilian leaders who are both ignorant and stupid.

    When and how did Trump obtained the authorization to initiate economic war against Iran?

    Answer: US Congress and the American people’s folksy religion of Old Testament Christianity.

    This will never end, in my opinion.

  3. U.S. is not prepared for the ‘re-think’. The Middle East is the real ‘test’. It took the Europeans the Crusades adventure and failure to ‘re-think’ the whole Middle East, and even with the Sykes-Picot accord which had the agreement of the Russian Empire and the Kingdom of Italy at the time (1916) they tried a ‘new partition’…

    And, to comment on Kooshy, latest… c’mon man! Iran doesn’t have al all the same significance as China in Nixon’s times…


    And, to comment on Kooshy, latest… c’mon man! Iran doesn’t have al all the same significance as China in Nixon’s times…”

    Yes, as I argued on my comment not yet, at least not completely yet. But surely is getting there, faster than many thought, if US is to reduce her security/policing commitments ( so called security umbrella) in MENA region, and leave the region, to solidify her challenging encounters with Russia in Mediterranean/Europe theater, and with China in the pacific, she would need rapprochement with Iran to secure her interests in Persian Gulf western Asia region, exactly as she did with China, after losing the war in southeast Asia/Vietnam back in early 70s. As admitted by all sides, including US military, US has already lost every war she started in western Asia (Iran’s backyard) region, and currently, is or is seeking various negotiations, or demand for negotiations with state and non-state actors to secure her interstates before leaving the region. At the same time, stubbornly she has started big power competition with Russia and China, a cold war atmosphere.

    Now, don’t you see this new geopolitical atmosphere created by US own doing resemble the condition US found herself in late 60s early 70s when she lost the war in S. pacific? if so, doesn’t this look similar to the condition, she found herself negotiating with china at the end of Vietnam war? If it does, then must be obvious why US is putting so much pressure (on her own allies) to bring Iran to the negotiation table.

    This is because ,US desperately need it, it’s an strategic necessity, and Iranians know this, and are not willing to give it to US without a major cost to US. Which US is not yet willing to pay but eventually has no choice. IMO the more US delays and maneuver on tactics the higher cost she will eventually pay.

  5. Kooshy

    I think Iran need not concern herself too much with the possibility of strategic settlement with the United States and her vassals. When they are ready, they will call.

    Iran’s effort ought to be focused on the consolidation and growth of the Shia Crescent. For this, she will need to avoid unnecessary wars but be ready to fight them.

    The Russian Federation is pursuing an analogous policy, have given up on the West.

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